Discovering the sports roots of Route 66: Mickey Mantle’s home town, the Unser Racing Museum, a Field of Dreams in Kansas, the Payne Stewart Highway and golf course … if you can find them

They’re called the Inland Empire 66ers for a reason.

It might not dawn on you why until you’re actually making the approach to San Bernardino’s San Manual Stadium, home of the Angels’ single-A team, a one-time Dodgers’ affiliate as well.

The 66ers’ nickname has nothing to do with an historic gold rush or a city incorporation date.

Historic Route 66 is nearby.

On E Street, not far from the original McDonald’s site, and a few blocks over from the 215 and the famous Wigwam Motel famous for their array of kitschy teepees for nightly rentals, the stadium entrance has an arched sign featuring a character of car mechanic swinging a giant wrench like a baseball bat. The team logo is like a Route 66 highway sign.

They’ve only been the 66ers since 2003, a team previously known as the Stampede and Spirit until the current Elmore Sports Group took over and decided to pay homage to the famous strip that often isn’t even marked on road maps any longer.

The original route from Chicago to the Santa Monica Pier (stretched from its original end point in downtown L.A.) goes some 2,488 or so miles, with abandoned gas stations, motels, drive-in movie lots and even the still-thriving Cadillac Ranch (bring a can of spray paint).

Baseball parks mark its path at many twists and turns along the way.

Chicago’s Wrigley Field and L.A. Dodger Stadium are just as much part of the start and finish line – a stretch of Sunset Blvd., near the Dodgers Stadium entrance at Vin Scully Avenue sports an historic Route 66 marker. And if you sit in the outfield bleachers at Wrigley, there is a gate down the right-field line where, if you squeeze your hand through just right, you can snag some ivy off the outfield wall.

In between, the Dodgers’ Triple A affiliate in Oklahoma City sits – at Chicksaw Bricktown Park is a statue of local hero Johnny Bench, born in OKC but prepped in a tiny offshoot 60 miles west called Binger, Okla.). Conveniently, the Dodgers’ Double-A team in Tulsa, Okla., known as the Drillers and playing in the art deco designed park known as Oneok Field, are just 100 miles East of OKC, also on the route.

So, too, the Albuquerque Isotopes, part of the Colorado Rockies’ family now, is a must-visit for fans of “The Simpsons,” right next to the University of New Mexico sports facilities even on a non-game day. Go ahead and include St. Louis’ newest Busch Stadium as part of the path as well, next to the Gateway Arch.

(One must also include the souvenir MLB plastic helmets used as bowls at the Ted Drewes Frozen Custard stand in St. Louis as well. Our “Terramizzou” came in a Cardinals’ helmet, which helped as it quickly melted upon an attempt to eat it in the hot sun).

When you go to the Auto Club to get the official Route 66 map, there are nearly 100 suggestions of places to stop and see. But sports-related landmarks are rarely mentioned. Most, you just have to stumble upon them amidst the neon landmarks.

Some may be obvious. Chicagoland Speedway in Joliet, Ill., opened in 2001 as a home to NASCAR events, is right next to the dirt oval known as Route 66 Raceway as well as the NHRA track that hosts the Route 66 Nationals.

(FYI: The National Hot Rod Association national offices in Glendora are also steps away from  the stretch of Route 66 that runs on Foothill Blvd., and the Glendora Country Club).

Still, it may be even news to those living in Arcadia that Santa Anita Race Track is bordered on the east and north by Huntington Drive that turns into Colorado Place (then Colorado Street, then Colorado Blvd., the Rose Parade route in Pasadena) – all part of Route 66 next to the 210.

As we made the trek recently, threading our way through all the usual tourists traps and beat-up sign posts, the times we discovered sites that had a tie to sports enhanced the eye-opening slice of Americana.

It’s worthy of letting everyone else know they exist.

In addition to the Inland Empire 66ers’ home base, take this as six more  momentous sports moments/monuments along Route 66 you may otherwise miss if you’re glued to a Route 66 phone app trying to retract the original course:

Mickey Mantle’s birthplace and high school in Commerce, Okla.

The Will Rogers Turnpike (Route 44) that overlays much of Route 66 doesn’t include this a stretch that requires a diversion through Joplin, Miss., a slight ride through the corner of Kansas and then heading south to Oklahoma.
When E. 50 Road merges into 560 Road South, suddenly Commerce emerges. Home of Mickey Mantle, the “Commerce Comet.”
As Route 66 bends past the L&M Convenience Store, Commerce High School comes up, as does the statue of Mickey Mantle, right behind the center field wall of Mickey Mantle Field. There exists another statue of Mantle further down in Oklahoma City, but this one resonates with a foundation that includes a short dirt path from the small parking area up to the words “A Great teammate,” which is how Mantle said he wanted to be remembered.

Finding his birthplace home is a very short side journey, up some narrow roads to 319 South Quincy Street, where a modest white house exists, next to rust-sided shed.
A plaque next to the front door marks the historic spot. Peek in the windows to imagine how a family of six lived here. Walk through the shed and feel the vibrations of Mantle hitting tennis balls off the corrugated siding, learning to switch hit.
(We did pick up a souvenir from the place, if you must know: A branch off the tree from the front yard was peacefully resting within our grasp. Kind of made us feel as if this could have been from the same tree Mantle’s dad carved his first Wonderboy bat … or are we mixing up our stories here?)
A recent New York Times story about the city explains that while the town has pride in the Mantle name, even painting the base of the water tower with Yankee pinstripes and a No. 7, there is a depressed area that needs some attention and economic support.
Ironic, sure, for a town still called Commerce.

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The Field of Dreams baseball parks in a Kansas cornfield

Back up to where that Kansas cutoff is included in the original Route 66 pathway, and through SE 50th Street that runs through a tiny three-square mile town called Baxter Springs, which locals insist is the “First Cow Town in Kansas” (there’s a specific Cow Town Mural on the corner of 11th and Military Ave., to mark the proper ID).
It does sit in the middle of a cornfield, kind of like the one inspired by the W.P. Kinsella book “Shoeless Joe” that led to the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” and the establishment of the movie site in Dyersville, Iowa.
Right down from the March Arch Bridge tourist site, this is named after former Baxter Springs baseball coach Don Karnes, who started the program in 1981 and led the Lions to state titles in 1985, 1991, 1992, 2002 and 2003 as well as American Legion national title in 2003.
While not much has been documented about the field itself, the story goes that Karnes and his wife started a non-profit in 1999 so his teams could have a place of their own to play. He donated 12 acres for the complex, and it wasn’t until recent years that the field added lights and the city named it after Karnes.
On the Kansas state tourism board website, there is a simple post about it: “This baseball/softball complex on ‘Old Route 66’ was the dream of a local high school teacher and coach. Community support allowed the dream to become reality.”
On a plaque outside the field, Karnes’ words are etched: “The thing is, don’t quit! Keep planning and working and you’ll be a winner in the end.”
‘Nough said.

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The Payne Stewart Highway

Likely a good chance you didn’t  throw your clubs in the trunk when you were setting out on this journey.
Consider it as you trek through Springfield, Ill.
To honor the popular PGA Tour player who won three majors in his 42 years before a tragic death in a private plane crash in 1999, a stretch of Interstate 44 (overlapping with Route 66) through his hometown of Springfield has been renamed the Payne Steward Highway.
Such a cool thing to see.
And right off that stretch is the Bill and Payne Stewart Golf Course (1825 E. Norton Road), a par 70 layout that’s some 6,162 yards from the blue tees, named after him and his father, a former Missouri Amateur champion, on nearby Norton Road.
It comes up fast and goes even faster if you’re not paying attention.
Play though and remember the man in the plus-fours who made it famous in a town otherwise known as Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace.

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The Unser Racing Museum in Albuquerque, N.M.
1776 Montano Road NW, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, N.M.

Take exit 154 off the 40 West (which overlaps Route 66) and you’re on Unser Blvd., a two-lane off ramp that will eventually lead you over the famed Rio Grande and over to Montano Road near Balloon Fiesta Park that is the home of everything Unser under the sun.
Dotted with checkered flags and giant steering wheel door, it has its own brickyard – buy a $100 brick, put your name on it, and it’ll go up on display.
Tracing the Unser racing family tree is also an informative process – from Jerry Unser Sr. (born in 1899, who raced up Pike’s Peak in Colorado), to Jerry Jr. (a USAC Stock Car champ who died in an Indy 500 practice in 1959) and his younger brothers Bobby (Indy 500 winner in 1968, ‘75 and ‘81) and Al (Indy 500 winner in 1970, ’71, ’78 and ’87), then to Al Jr. (Indy 500 winner in ’92 and ’94) and their racing legacy.
The souvenir store has all sorts of Route 66 car-related things, bobbleheads, artwork, die-cast models and signed helmets.
Next to the Albuquerque Isotopes park, it may be the most famous sports must-see place in the city. Still, it doesn’t explain how former MLB pitcher Al Albuquerque got his name. That’s for another trip.

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The American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame and Museum in Amarillo, Tex.
2601 I-40 East, Amarillo, TX 79104

Not far from the Big Tex Steak House (eat a 72-ounce steak in one hour and it’s free) is this impressive high-tech building right on I-40.
It costs more than a quarter to get in – $7 for adults, $3 for kids – but the educational experience is worthy of the area is represents.
The website explains how in March of 1940, “a group of influential ranchers gathered one night around the dining room table of one of the wealthiest and largest ranch owners in the country with one goal – save the short, stocky, good-minded horses that ranchers and cattlemen, like themselves, preferred. At the time, these horses were commonly referred to as Steeldust horses, after a fabled horse that could drive Longhorns through any weather or terrain and run the quarter mile faster than any other breed. … That night marked the birth of the American Quarter Horse Association and its mission to preserve and improve the bloodlines of the Steeldust horse, known today as the American Quarter Horse.”
About 100 quarter horses have been enshrined in the Hall, which has a variety of displays, art work, video and educational materials. Even better, a Cracker Barrel sits walking distance from the front door. Cowboy hats optional.

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Billy Sims BBQ

“Eat Like A Champion,” is says on all the Styrofoam cups used at the 50-some eateries that land on Route 66, mostly in Oklahoma towns, but also hitting neighboring spots in Joplin, Mo.
Championing an establishment named after a former University of Oklahoma Heisman Trophy winning running back and former NFL No. 1 overall draft pick comes with a duty to do some fact checking.
It’s doubtful any of the kids working the counter or sweeping the floors at our stop in Elk City, Okla., knew much about Sims, other than there are framed photographs of Sports Illustrated covers and his OU playing days all over the place.
Maybe Sims’ best typifies the Route 66 stretch in that area – you had to see it in its full glory to appreciate it, because it’s not what it used to be.
The bio at the website talks about his time as an “accomplished athlete and successful entrepreneur” before he started this business model in 2004. What’s glossed over is the fact that after Sims’ retirement from the Detroit Lions after five seasons, he “lost his accumulated wealth through a series of failed business ventures and he was forced to file bankruptcy in 1990” which led to a failed marriage, jail time for unpaid child support and a conviction of domestic violence with his second wife. He once sold his Heisman, went to court to gain custody of it again … you get the idea.
He’s learned from his mistakes, as we found in this Detroit Free Press update from 2015 and this Huffington Post story.
Sims’ restaurant chain, which began franchising in 2008, has sandwich as “The Heisman” (brisket or pulled pork with a slide of bologna and hot link),” but it seems to specialize in tail-gate packages of ribs, sausages and smoked chicken.
Before venturing into Sims, we checked the Yelp review, comparing it to many other famous barbecue joints available in the Missouri-Kansas-Texas-Oklahoma loop of Route 66. Most were sticky thumbs up.
“There’s not much else between Amarillo and OKC, and I would eat there again, if I had to,” one wrote. Maybe he got there for the All-You-Can-Eat Tuesday rib night, which lasts until 9 p.m. closing, but sometimes they close early if business was just a little slow on the Mother Road.

 

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